Capitol ditches mask requirement ahead of State of the Union

President Joe Biden waves as he walks with first lady Jill Biden to board Maine One at the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022, en route to Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) (Carolyn Kaster, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – Face coverings are now optional for President Joe Biden's State of the Union address Tuesday, as Congress is lifting its mask requirement on the House floor after federal regulators eased guidelines last week in a rethinking of the nation's strategy to adapt to living with a more manageable COVID-19.

Congress' Office of the Attending Physician announced the policy change Sunday, lifting a requirement that has been in place for much of the past two years and had become a partisan flashpoint on Capitol Hill. The change ahead of the speech will avoid a potential disruptive display of national tensions and frustration as Biden tries to nudge the country to move beyond the pandemic.

The nation's capital is now in an area considered low risk under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's new metrics, which place less of a focus on positive test results and more on what’s happening in community hospitals. The new system greatly changes the look of the CDC’s risk map and puts more than 70% of the U.S. population in counties where the coronavirus is posing a low or medium threat to hospitals. Healthy people in those risk areas can stop wearing masks indoors, the agency said.

Mask-wearing will still be a personal choice in Congress and special precautions will be in place for Biden's speech, which unlike last year's joint address will be open to all members of Congress. All attendees will be required to take a COVID-19 test before entering the chamber ahead of Biden's address.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced initial guidelines earlier this month from the Office of the Sergeant at Arms that included a threat that violation of guidelines for social distancing and mask wearing during the event would "result in the attendee’s removal." The new policy eases the fears of some Biden allies who had been gearing up for potentially disruptive protests from Republicans to the policies. Some GOP lawmakers have racked up thousands of dollars in fines for violating mask-wearing mandates on the House floor.

The relaxed guidance comes as Biden aims to use his remarks to highlight the progress against COVID-19 made over the last year, including vaccinations and therapeutics, and guide the country into a “new phase” of the virus response that is not driven by emergency measures and looks more like life pre-pandemic.

Seating for Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress, last April, was capped at about 200 — about 20% of usual capacity for a presidential presentation — and White House aides fretted that a repeat would be a dissonant image from the message the president aimed to deliver to the American people.

“I think you’re going to see it look much more like a normal state of the union than the president’s joint address," White House chief of staff Ron Klain said Saturday. "It’s going to look like the most normal thing people have seen in Washington in a long time.”

The Capitol move comes just a day before Washington's mask mandate expires on Monday, and as a host of states and local governments have begun implementing the new CDC guidelines and lifting mask-mandates indoors and in schools.

Case loads across the country have dropped precipitously since their early January peak, with the omicron variant proving to be less likely than earlier strains to cause death or serious illness, especially in vaccinated and boosted individuals.